Historic Churches of Edisto Island
Edisto Island is one of the state’s earlier-settled islands. Lord Ashley Cooper acquired plantation lands there in 1674. The state’s Colonial Governor Joseph Morton built a home on the island in the 1680s. The island flourished as a producer of sea island cotton. As a result of the booming wealth on the island, many churches were built in the late 18th and first half of the 19th centuries. Three historic churches have been beautifully preserved on the island. Come tour the grounds and meander through the graveyards.
The Edisto Island Baptist Church was built in 1818 due to the efforts of Hepzibah Jenkins Townsend, the wife of a local plantation owner (Bleak Hall Plantation – modern day Botany Bay Plantation). She raised the funds to build the sanctuary by baking and selling pastries and other baked goods in Charleston. The church sanctuary includes a second story gallery where many slaves worshipped. Originally the church was square in plan and built on a tabby foundation. By simply viewing the sides of the church, the line of a later addition is visible. The church is sheathed in beaded weatherboard.
Federal troops overtook the island during the Civil War causing plantation owners to flee. The former slaves remained and were deeded the church in 1865. It then became known as the New First Missionary Baptist Church. During Reconstruction, the black congregation doubled the size of the sanctuary. An addition was built on a brick pier foundation. The front façade was carefully removed and reattached after the expansion was completed. A two-story front portico and pediment were added in 1880. The portico is supported by four square posts. This addition is proof of the wealth that was gained by the freedmen during the Reconstruction period. The façade has two transom-topped entrances and a central window. Smaller gallery level windows grace a second story.
A small rectangular belfry with a tent roof of standing seam metal and louvered opening on three sides rises above the portico. It is topped with a crowning finial. The only 20th century changes to the building were the additions of restrooms in the rear. A newer sanctuary was built in 1982 that sits just next door. New First Missionary Baptist Church now worships in the more modern sanctuary. The Episcopal Church on Edisto now holds services in the historic structure. The grave of founder Hepzibah Jenkins Townsend lies in the yard of the historic church.
Episcopal Church on Edisto/ New First Missionary Baptist Church
1644 SC Hwy 17
Edisto Island, (843)631-5040
The Presbyterian Church on Edisto was first established in 1685. The building that is in use today was built in 1831. This historic structure has changed very little over the years. The two-story rectangular church was renovated in 1836 to replace the portico and add a coved ceiling. Massive Greek Doric columns support the triangular pediment of the recessed portico. The frieze above the columns contains a pattern of triglyphs and metopes. The church front also features two Palladian entrances with fanlights. Each church side has a matching door.
The roofline is topped with a cupola. Shuttered windows on the church sides are also topped with semi-circular fan lights. The second-story gallery is lit by a row of smaller windows. Inside a gallery wraps around the back and sides of the sanctuary. During Union occupation the church was used by the former slaves of the congregation. They would continue to use the church until 1867. This church serves as one of the oldest Presbyterian congregations in the state, having been formed in 1695.
The church grounds contain a prayer chapel and graves that date as far back as 1787. In fact, the graveyard is thought to be quite haunted. The tomb of Julia Legare can be found in there. Julia was just 22 when she died in 1852. Legend has it she contacted diphtheria and slipped into a coma. She was pronounced dead and buried in the family mausoleum. Local folk lore states years later, when the tomb was opened for another burial, Julia’s body was found to have been buried alive. After this discovery, the door to the tomb was often found mysteriously opened. Today, no door secures the mausoleum.
Presbyterian Church on Edisto Island
2164 SC Hwy 174
Edisto Island, (843)869-2326
Trinity Episcopal Church was first built on Edisto Island in 1840. That structure was occupied by Union forces during the Civil War and left unharmed. It was destroyed during an accidental fire in 1876. The current structure was built in 1880. It stands as the only example of Victorian church architecture on the island. The one-story rectangular church is sheathed in weatherboard. Slender square posts support the triangular pediment. The vertical planks of the pediment siding are pointed to form a zig zag pattern. The inset steeple is covered in white shingles and has a decorative louver on each side.
The double door entrance and clear glass flanking windows are topped with semicircular fanlights. A triangular louver is positioned above the door in the pediment. The louvers, roof and shutters are painted a dark green which contrasts with the pristine white of the wood. The interior of the sanctuary is covered in patterned strips of beadboard.
Trinity Episcopal Church
1589 SC Hwy 174
Edisto Island, (843)869-3568
For more information on Edisto Island, visit southcarolinalowcountry.com/edistoisland.